Pierre Polinière

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Pierre Polinière (8 September 1671 – 9 February 1734) was an early investigator of electricity and electrical phenomena, notably "barometric light", a form of gas-discharge light, which suggested the possibility of electric lighting. He also helped to introduce the scientific method in French universities.


Pierre Polinière was born in Coulonces, Calvados.[1][2][3] He was the only child of Jean-Baptiste Poulynière and Françoise Vasnier. Pierre's father had inherited an estate in Coulonces in lower Normandy. However, when Pierre was 3 years old, his father died. Fortunately his mother recognized his potential and strove to get him a good education. After receiving a classical education at the University of Caen, two of his paternal uncles, who were Catholic clergymen, arranged to have him study philosophy at Harcourt College of the University of Paris. There he also studied mathematics under Pierre Varignon (1654–1722), an early advocate of calculus. In the 1690s Poliniere received a degree in medicine; he also became interested in science. He did original research, including studies of the production of light by electrical discharges through low-pressure air, in which field he made discoveries that were simultaneous with, but independent of, those of the Englishman Francis Hauksbee (1666–1713).[4][5][6][7] His discovery that static electricity could generate light in low-pressure gases led him to speculate that lightning was a form of static electric discharge.[8]

He also presented public lectures on science, which included experimental demonstrations of his own devising. Around 1700, he presented these demonstrations before students at the colleges of the University of Paris.[9] His lectures proved very popular: in 1722, he presented a series of experiments before the young King of France, Louis XV. In 1709, he published Expériences de Physique (Physics Experiments),[10] a book presenting his demonstrations on magnetism, light and colors, hydrostatics, the properties of air, and other subjects. The book went through five editions. He was an early French advocate of Isaac Newton's findings in optics: in the second (and subsequent) editions of his Expériences, he abandoned the then current theory of color and instead advocated Newton’s theory that white light was a mixture of lights of various colors.[11]

At age 36 Poliniere married Marguerite Asselin, whose brother was principal of Harcourt College. The couple had two sons (Julien-Pierre and Daniel) and two daughters (Jeanne and Marie).[12]

Perhaps his most important achievement was aiding the adoption of the scientific method in France. Among France's university professors, the belief prevailed that understanding of nature could be reached with certainty only by deductive logic since induction from experiment could not provide certainty; therefore, experiments merely served to confirm the conclusions of reasoned arguments about nature. Polinière abandoned this method, arguing that truths about nature could be reached only by experiment.[13] He died in his birth town of Coulonces in 1734.


  1. ^ Alexandre Savérien, Histoire des Philosophes Modernes. Avec leur Portrait ou Allegorie, vol. 6: Histoire des Physiciens (Paris, France: François, 1768), pages 165–216. (Includes engraved portrait on plate between pages 164 and 165.)
  2. ^ David W. Corson, "Polinière, Pierre," Dictionary of Scientific Biography, editor in chief, Charles C. Gillispie, (N. Y., N. Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), vol. 11, pages 67–68.
  3. ^ Hugues Rousselle de la Perrière and Bruno de Guibert, Le physicien Pierre Polinière (1671–1734). Un normand initiateur de la physique expérimentale. Notes généalogiques et biographiques sur sa famille et celle de Demoiselle Marguerite Asselin son épouse. (Cholet, France: Pays et Terroirs, 2002).
  4. ^ See, for example, the report (in French) in: Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, January 1707, pages 106–110.
  5. ^ David Corson, "Pierre Polinière, Francis Hauksbee, and Electroluminescence: A case of simultaneous discovery," Isis, vol. 59, no. 4, pages 402–413 (Winter 1968).
  6. ^ Gad Freudenthal (1981) "Electricity between chemistry and physics: the simultaneous itineraries of Francis Hauksbee, Samuel Wall, and Pierre Polinière," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, vol. 11, 203–229.
  7. ^ See also Wikipedia article on Barometric light.
  8. ^ W. D. Hackman, "Scientific instruments: models of brass and aids to discovery" in The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences, ed.s David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989), page 52.
  9. ^ Blake T. Hanna, "Polinière and the teaching of physics at Paris: 1700–1730," Eighteenth-Century Studies Presented to Arthur M. Wilson, ed. Peter Gay (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1972), pages 13–39.
  10. ^ Pierre Polinière, Expériences de Physique [Physics Experiments] (Paris: Jean de Laulne, 1709). The second edition of 1718 is available on-line (in French) at: [1].
  11. ^ David W. Corson, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 11, page 68.
  12. ^ Savérien (1768), pages 189–190.
  13. ^ Roderick W. Home, "Chapter 15: Mechanics and experimental physics," The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 4: Eighteenth-century Science, ed. Roy Porter (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pages 356–357.